David Bowie will rightly be remembered for his art — but his business sense was equally impressive.
The encomiums for David Bowie flowed quickly, effusively and deservedly after the abrupt announcement of his passing in January. Whether in the guise of Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke or any of the other iterations he inhabited over the course of a career that spanned decades and eras (some of which, like glam, he helped define), Bowie was always inventive, never risk-averse. But while his musical accomplishments are paramount in his biography, it’s worth recalling that Bowie was as innovative when it came to business.
His most notable achievement in this realm is, of course, what came to be known as Bowie Bonds. Back in 1997, Bowie sold $55 million worth of notes that were tied to future royalties from 25 albums recorded prior to 1990, and which included hits like ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘Changes’. The 10-year bonds were essentially securities, backed by those future royalties, and Bowie used the proceeds from the bond sale to purchase the masters of those recordings.
Bowie Bonds were novel but hardly novelties. They were sold privately to the Prudential Insurance Company of America and, according to Bloomberg Business, were initially given an A3 rating by Moody’s Investors Service, the seventh-highest investment-grade rank in the spectrum. They didn’t fare well in the long run — as the new century rolled in, music piracy on the Internet led to a drop in revenues industry-wide and the rating was downgraded in 2004 to Baa3, one level above junk bonds. But Bowie himself made out fine. In fact, as royalties took a hit due to piracy, his ownership of the masters provided even better revenues thanks to use of some of the songs in television commercials, such as ‘Heroes’, which became a Microsoft commercial theme. (In 2009, a sound-a-like version of his ‘Space Oddity’ recorded by Cat Power was used in a series of commercials for Lincoln automobiles, and by then he’d gotten rights to the securitised publishing royalties back for a true win-win.) Perhaps more importantly, he established a financial model that was quickly embraced by other successful artists, including James Brown, Rod Stewart and Iron Maiden. And the concept eventually went well beyond music: the market for securitising intellectual property today includes IP like film rights, pharmaceutical patents, restaurant franchises and dead celebrities such as Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.
Bowie did well over a career that spanned 51 years, during which he sold 150 million albums, according to BPI numbers. But that wasn’t all that put him at number 707 on the (London) Sunday Times Rich List, with a reported net worth of £135 million (about $195 million). Bowie was culturally prescient, able to leap ahead of declining genres and establish himself in ascendant ones, leaving glam behind to move into white soul, smooth pop and eventually back to rock with Tin Machine. But he also did what any successful enterprise must: he diversified.
He was technologically adventurous, as evidenced by BowieNet, his own ISP service. Founded in 1998, BowieNet not only got you online (dial-up, to be sure, and built on an existing hosting provider UltraStar) but anticipated the immersive fan-engagement environment of today by offering things like email names with an @davidbowie.net domain name, as well as exclusive access to Bowie-centric content such as live video feeds from the studio.
His appearance as a hard-to-kill wraith in the goofy 1967 short The Image presaged his Ziggy Stardust character, but it also laid the foundations for more solid acting roles such as a major part in Nagisa Oshima’s bleak Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence and ultimately the lead in The Man Who Fell To Earth. Films remained part of his portfolio for years to come, including roles and cameos in Labyrinth (1986), Basquiat (1996), and Christopher Nolan’s 2006 duelling-illusionists drama The Prestige, in which Bowie was cast as the great inventor Nikola Tesla (replete with spectacularly electromagnetic rock-star entrance).
There was also theatre. In 1980 he played the title role in a Broadway production of The Elephant Man. His musical Lazarus last year became the Off Broadway New York Theater Workshop’s fastest-selling show.
And let’s not forget his impact on the fashion industry. He may never have authored a line of couture (an increasingly favourite sideline for mega music stars these days) but his influence was undeniable, felt, as the New York Times noted, “not just in men’s wear but in women’s wear, too; not just in ready-to-wear, but in couture; from high to low and back again”. It was all on display at the 2013 Victoria & Albert exhibition ‘David Bowie Is,’ which was, not coincidentally, sponsored by Gucci.
Bowie remained theatrical to the end. His 18-month battle with cancer was a well-kept secret but he had to know that the release of what would be his final album, Blackstar, would take place within days of his death. Now that is a showman.
But it’s also the sum of an astute businessman, who understood the precariousness of the typical show-business career. Diversification, financial innovation, technological adventurism, calculated risk-taking — all of this would look familiar in a Silicon Valley entrepreneur’s rap sheet. There have been some on the creative side of pro audio who have shown this kind of perspicacity without having it overwhelm their art. Les Paul comes to mind: an inventor and technical innovator who was lightning fast with his fingers and his mind. Phil Ramone was another, who owned recording studios even as he ventured into high-resolution audio labels and long-distance recording. Not everyone has this kind of range, but what Bowie reminds us is that a laser-like focus on music production need not be to the exclusion of applying our powers to the more pragmatic aspect of lives and careers. Talent may be finite but it is also, fortunately, fungible.